Can we build email, donor and supporter lists with value and trust instead of churning through names?
Most nonprofit (and ecommerce) marketing runs on a model fraught with peril and waste.
There is a constant cycle that’s roughly so:
- Get people on an email list via paid or sometimes unpaid methods. Maybe get their eyeballs on Instagram, Facebook or some other platform.
- Send those people email. And/or online ads and posts. Send them more email.
- Thank them if they give (or buy).
- Send them more email and ads.
- Keep sending them email and ads.
- For those (often the majority) who never do anything you may eventually send them one (or a few) last emails asking if they still want emails. You may or may not be serious about the response.
- You take them off your list. Or you don’t. In which case you send more email.
- Get (more) people on an email list via paid or sometimes unpaid methods.
Many organizations have built an economy of churn (which could be, but isn’t, a portmanteau of chase and burn). The hope is to replace more names than they lose and make enough off them in the short term to pay for the cost of getting them in the first place.
Many (most?) organizations have supporter relationships that begin, live and end online. This makes it harder to connect to people, build personal relationships, and give people a reason to stick with an organization.
Let’s assume that one can do little, if any, in person or on the ground work with supporters; that we’re constrained to online activities. We can use email, websites, social media and perhaps text messaging, voice mail, print.
Community, fundraising, membership and online organizing folks should understand why people stay with an organization and how to bring this into online experience. And I don’t mean simply mean “engagement.” Clicks, pageviews and videos liked or viewed are engagement. They’re also simple indicators of attention. And attention is not retention.
Trust, value and why people stay
There’s a lot of research out there about why people stay in jobs, in domestic relationships, in their houses.
People often stay because it’s easier than leaving. A 1973 article on Why Employees Stay in their jobs pointed to inertia. Most people stay not because their happy or like the job but because it’s too much trouble to change. Their prospects are uncertain. Having a mediocre job is better than no job at all.
As you may guess, employee inertia doesn’t do much for productivity. This is a 50 year old article. But it seems possible that inertia is still a factor in staying in a job.
Email lists are probably 75-90% inertia people. Sure, those people are “staying” but they’re not helping out. Their data sends the wrong signals. They tell us we could and should have 200,000 subscribers so we busy ourselves (and our money) replacing the 20,000 people who unsubscribe or lapse off the list. And we don’t optimize for the people who want to stay.
Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, often writes about the connection between people, education, careers and the vitality of cities.
In the 2014 article, Why people stay where they are, Florida noted that housing costs, affordability and community economic strength are not, as most people believe, a driving factor in choices to leave or stay in a community. Community quality – things like comfort, safety and sense of belonging – keeps people around (or pushes them away).
Taken together, this would seem to imply that the decision to stay is tied less to quality or affordability of housing itself, and more to the quality of the neighborhood or community. … The main reasons why stayers stay, according to our analysis, revolve around social relationships and quality of place:
The ability to meet people and make friends; the quality of public schools; and the overall physical beauty and quality of a neighborhood. These were much more important than economic factors like the availability of job opportunities or the perception of future economic conditions, which our analysis found not to be statistically associated with why people stay.
We could also look at the oft-asked question: why do people stay in disaster prone cities? Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, a professor at the University of Essex, studies disaster relief and resilience. Reinhardt found that trust in government keeps people in place. Lack of trust pushes people to leave. Trust is won or lost during disasters when people rely most on institutions for support, guidance and safety.
Reinhardt also writes that people stay because “it feels like home.” This is part inertia. But it’s large part based on relationships. People build strong ties to neighbors, businesses, parks and more. If others stay we have social proof that we will maintain these relationships, jobs, customers and friends.
Invest in staying, not coming and going
How do you grow and sustain a community (and your fundraising) if you’re churning through people? You do it by buying and burning through lists. Check all the unread emails in your inbox to see how that’s going. You can do it by not taking people off your email list. That’s bad for deliverability, skews results and decisionmaking, and turns people off.
You can grow multi-channel content: social media platforms, video, messaging apps, even print or audio. This can be a step in the right direction if you don’t recreate the broadcast-only dynamics that are common in email.
Perhaps it’s possible to invest in relationships and retention, not just acquisition. What might this mean?
Look to recruit in high-retention environments
This may mean smaller or more niche audiences and lists. Partner with smaller organizations, online media outlets and influencers. Build relationships and offer value to the partners.
Make the most of your first days and weeks together
Relationships take time. But a good first impression is critical, especially in digital where the background noise is loud and distracting. Onboard new people like your life depends on it.
Create a welcome series. Test it and track it. Invite questions and conversations. Bring member and community voices to the welcome, not just staff or leadership. Make it familiar. Provide social proof.
Bring value to the table
Communicate more than asks for action or money. What would be useful to your people? Provide calendars of events, data about your issues, eye-opening visuals, explainers and FAQs. Provide insights and news, not just alerts. Invite people to a series of webinars or trainings. People remember offers of value (and proof of credibility) even if they don’t attend.
Get to know people
This is hard at scale. But why add people to a supporter list if you have no ability or intention to hear from them or know them? Plus, today’s CRM tools and multiple two-way comms channels make dialog much easier, especially when you start with what’s above. Activists, volunteers and current donors can also scale supporter contact.
Learn about community, trust and value from (and with) other groups and fields
Create networks and opportunities for nonprofit development and membership teams to learn alongside civic community builders.
Collaborate with journalists and digital media sites, all of whom are busy testing ways to find, engage and retain supporters (aka subscribers). See this from Gina Bulla, audience research director at The Atlantic, who is describing research aimed at finding future subscribers (new high-retention environments):
One of the big, important questions we’re focused on right now is: who are our future subscribers? We’ve just executed research to help us identify audiences that may be inclined to subscribe to The Atlantic in the near or not-so-distant future. We’ll use this research to ideate strategies to increase conversion, engagement, and discovery.
This sort of research and approach to audience identification could be useful to nonprofit organizations. [Madeleine White / The Audiencers]
People stay in relationships built on trust, value and passion (sure, it’s possible to love an organization and its cause or a community the same way you might your partner). We can build communications, content and organizing programs built on trust, value and (yes) passion if we choose to.
Inertia also keeps people around. This is a big part of email list size now. But we shouldn’t equate presence and action or an email list with a valued relationship.